Blazing arrival brings
By Sherri Drake
December 19, 2003
A blazing FedEx cargo
plane rumbled down an airport runway Thursday,
sending quivers through nearby buildings.
Two pilots and five passengers bolted to safety
through the front windows of the fiery plane.
Hours later, the plane's charred carcass was
still drawing onlookers and acrid smoke drifted
through the air.
One of the plane's three engines apparently
exploded sometime between when it landed and
stopped, airport officials said Thursday.
On board the flight from Oakland, Calif., were
two FedEx pilots and five other pilots, who were
traveling as jump seat passengers. FedEx wouldn't
identify those on board.
Witnesses from nearby businesses said they
heard two loud booms and felt a quake in the walls
as the plane landed.
"It sounded like a dadgum bomb went off," said
Mike Williams, manager of Johnson Products on
When Lisa Bell and Laurie Moultrie felt the
sudden clap, they ran from their buildings toward
the runway, they said.
"You could see fireballs," said Bell, who works
at Memphis Sign Erectors.
Orange flames were all that was visible through
the billowing clouds of smoke.
"You couldn't see nothing of the plane. It was
just big, black smoke," said Ronnie Hopper, who
looked on with co-workers from Jamison Steel Rule
"We thought, 'Man, they're dead.' "
But very quickly, through the thick smoke,
passengers appeared through the front windows and
shimmied down cords on the plane's nose.
"It's kinda funny, but they were throwing their
stuff out and then coming out. It was like luggage
and a box and then the guys," Hopper said.
Tower officials weren't aware of any problems
on board when the plane made a by-the-book
landing, they said.
"There was no advance warning," said Larry Cox,
president and CEO of the airport authority. "The
crew did not contact the tower," he said.
"Normally, if a crew has a cautionary landing,
they'll call ahead so we can have the Fire
Department stand by."
As soon as the plane landed, however, tower
officials saw a small fire on the right side
The plane veered down the runway and the
landing gear came off, Cox said.
Aviation officials were trying to find the
fire's cause Thursday. Faulty landing gear,
problems in the cargo bay or in the plane's engine
were among the possibilities.
The plane's right wing and engine ripped from
the body of the plane and were hanging by a
Nearly 100 Memphis firefighters arrived at the
scene around 12:30 p.m. Thursday. They blanketed
the soot-covered MD-10 with foam as it rested on
its right side across the runway.
The MD-10, similar to a DC-10, has 16,000 cubic
feet in available cargo space and as much capacity
as four 40-foot railroad freight cars.
It took firefighters nearly an hour to
extinguish the fire, officials said.
Three of the seven passengers were taken to the
Regional Medical Center at Memphis for evaluation,
said FedEx spokesman Pam Roberson.
The four others were taken to Methodist
At The Med, paramedics unloaded three pilots
around 2 p.m.
A gray FedEx blanket was wrapped around one
pilot while another pilot's face and body were
covered with a yellow firefighter's jacket.
"No one was seriously injured and under their
protest they were brought to the hospital as a
precaution," Roberson said.
Many travelers in the terminals of the Memphis
International Airport scurried about as usual,
unaware of the disaster so close by.
"I didn't see anything, no rescue vehicles or
anything. Seemed as normal as could be," said Jim
Porter, who'd just arrived from Melbourne, Fla.
The landing caused no cancellations, diversions
or disruption in air traffic, said the airport
The troubled landing did close one of the
airport's four runways. And officials closed a
second runway so firefighters could reach the
burning plane, he said.
The plane could stay on the runway for up to 24
hours, if investigators need that much time, Cox
said. It was still there Thursday night.
The damage from the landing was the most
substantial he's seen in his 30 years at the
airport, Cox said.
Airport officials worked to reopen the center
runway late Thursday.
The FBI is making a routine check to see if
foul play was involved, Cox said.
If foul play is ruled out, the National
Transportation Safety Board will be responsible
for determining causes.
FedEx officials Thursday started notifying
customers whose packages were on the plane. Most
of the cargo was in containers, so officials are
assuming the packages are in decent shape.